“Happiness, not in another place, but this place…not for another hour, but this hour,” Walt Whitman assured us nearly two centuries ago. Yet how few of us truly appreciate life’s simple pleasures: the ecstasy of a deep, dream-dazed sleep after a dozen miserable nights of insomnia or the glorious freedom of a Sunday morning with no one to see and nothing to do? Do we rejoice at the sound of our lover’s key unlocking the door or the miracle of our lost dog finding his way home? No, instead we moan about our mortgage, gossip about the inconsequential lives of imbeciles, gripe about having to go to yet another pointless meeting, and impatiently tap our feet and let out an exasperated sigh when an elderly coupon-clipping lady holds up the line at the grocery store.
According to Pema Chodron, the ordained Buddhist monk behind the much beloved Wisdom of No Escape, the great thief of joy is resentment. When we forget what we have and only focus on what we lack and what we want, we conclude contentment is not in this place but another place, not in this hour but another hour. We’ll be happy, we tell ourselves, when we get the hip mid-century living room or the stylish wardrobe befitting a Vogue cover.
But what does the attainment of our ambitions actually get us? Do we feel less melancholic/despondent/angsty/anxiety-ridden when we fulfill our desires? No, getting what we want only makes us want more: the vintage velvet coach doesn’t look quite as charming in real life as it did on our Pinterest board, the blouse and trousers don’t look as chic on us as they did on that perfectly-proportioned fashion model. So we seek satisfaction in yet something else: a 1950s gold lamp, a Prada handbag hoping these things will finally satiate us.
For Chodron, the only way to escape this hedonic treadmill is to delight in what we usually neglect or ignore. To be awake to the beauty of ordinary moments— the unparalleled pleasure of clean sheets fresh out the dryer or the delight of an impromptu picnic in a field of tulips or the delectable bliss of chocolate raspberry gelato— is to step beyond the smallness of our own experience, beyond our bottomless desires and endless “more, more, more,” and into a wider perspective that recognizes the preciousness of every fleeting instant of our finite time on Earth. As Proust once reminded us, beauty exists not just in Italian Renaissance paintings but underdone, unsavory cutlets on half-removed tablecloths. In a similar sentiment, Chodron urges us to marvel at the overlooked miracles all around us:
“That sense of wonder and delight is present in every moment, every breath, every step, every movement of our own ordinary everyday lives, if we can connect with it. The greatest obstacle to connecting with our joy is resentment.
Joy has to do with seeing how big, how completely unobstructed, and how precious things are. Resenting what happens to you and complaining about your life are like refusing to smell the wild roses on your morning walk, or like being so blind that you don’t see a huge black raven when it lands in the tree that you’re sitting under. We can get so caught up in our own personal pain or worries that we don’t notice that the wind has come up or that somebody has put flowers on the table.”
For centuries, artists created “memento mori,” works meant to remind us of death’s inevitability. Latin for “remember that you have to die,” a memento mori often featured a skull or an hourglass, unsettling symbols of mortality. Though Jean Morin’s skull paintings or the elaborate crypts of friars’ bones beneath Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini church in Rome might seem morbid or disturbing, they communicate an important— perhaps the most important— fact of life: we will die. “What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be,” reads a haunting inscription in the Santa Maria catacombs. Whether you’re a pitiful peasant or a great king, in a hundred years, you— too— will be skull and bones, forgotten beneath the sands of time and reduced to a few insignificant words on a tombstone.
When we’ll perish, we cannot know. We could die fifty years from now, an old woman who’s done everything she set out to do— won the Pulitzer Prize, beheld the majesty of the Sistine Chapel, climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, seen Machu Picchu— or we could die unexpectedly on the way to work tomorrow. The grim reaper rarely announces his arrival: we die suddenly of a heart attack and collapse over our morning coffee, we say “I love you” to our mother like we have hundreds of times, wave goodbye and never return.
Some say death is the domain of melancholy emo kids and brooding philosophers, but it’s actually something we should all ponder. When we reckon with death— that we will most certainly die but we can never know how or when— we will finally live. No longer will we overlook the loneliness-lessening comfort of recognizing ourselves in a character from a book, nor will we take for granted simple pleasures like a good laugh or hot chocolate on a chilly autumn afternoon. We’ll no longer postpone visiting that quaint town in the English countryside or procrastinate on doing the things we’ve always wanted to. Life with its clean sheets and tulip fields and chocolate raspberry gelato, we realize, is too precious to squander.
What does it mean to grow up? Is it putting on a suit and tie and commuting an hour each way to work? solemnly sipping black coffee over the morning paper? getting married and buying a 3 bedroom house?
Most of us would say growing up means being responsible: adults pay their rent on the 1st of every month, they thoroughly research their options before investing in a washer and dryer, they have a retirement fund and plan for the future. To be an adult, we have to make decisions with our heads, not our hearts: we have to resist buying the gorgeous Spanish-style bungalow because it’s way out of our budget and doesn’t even have a backyard; we have to logically assess the strengths and shortcomings of a potential partner rather than allow ourselves to be blinded by first love.
In her simply-worded guide to spiritual surrender Wisdom of No Escape, ordained Buddhist monk Pema Chodron argues growing up is facing a few fundamental— if frightening— facts: we are born alone, we’ll die alone, and we alone our responsible for our existence. With equal parts tough love and gentle compassion, Chodron asserts it’s our duty to continuously push the boundaries of our comfort zone and leap out of the nest:
“In every human life (whether there are puberty rites or not) you are born, and you are born alone. You go through that birth canal alone, and then a whole process begins. And when you die, you die alone. No one goes with you. The journey that you make, no matter what your belief about that journey, is made alone. The fundamental idea of taking refuge is that between birth and death we are alone. Therefore, taking refuge in the buddha, the dharma, and the sangha does not mean finding consolation in them, as a child might find consolation in Mommy and Daddy. Rather, it’s a basic expression of our aspiration to leap out of the nest, whether you feel ready for it or not, to go through puberty rights and be an adult with no hand to hold. It expresses your realization that the only way to begin the real journey of life is to feel the ground of loving-kindness and respect for yourself and then to leap. In some sense, however, we never get to the point where we feel one hundred percent sure, ‘I have had my nurturing cradle. It’s finished. Now I can leap.’ We are always continuing to develop maitri and continuing to leap. The other day I was talking about meeting our edge and our desire to grab something when we reach our limits. Then we see that there’s more loving-kindness, more respect for ourselves, more confidence that needs to be nurtured. We work on that and keep leaping.”
Most of us possess a harsh inner critic who punishes us whenever we misbehave. No matter how small the infraction— we send an email with “there” instead of “their,” we indulge in one too many glasses of wine before bed, we yield to the temptation to smoke despite our determined resolution to quit— our stern inner schoolmistress sends us to the corner for time-out, our shoulders slumped, a humiliating dunce cap on our heads.
Though it’s our job to assume complete responsibility for our lives, we must forgive ourselves when we falter. Rather than relentlessly reprimand ourselves, we should be gentle. After all, it’s terrifying to leave the comfort of the nest and spread our wings on our own. When we’re courageous enough to interview for a new job or leave a twenty year marriage, what we need isn’t nasty disparagement or unmerciful censure, a slap on the wrist or whack with a ruler— we need loving-kindness, a reassuring hand and sympathetic squeeze on the shoulder. It is nerve-wracking to interview for another position, it is overwhelming to end a long-term relationship and start over. Just as exquisitely erudite British philosopher Alain de Botton insists self-love is the foundation of emotional health, Ms. Chodron believes difficulty is an invaluable opportunity to befriend ourselves:
“Taking refuge means that we feel that the way to live is to cut the ties, to cut the umbilical cord and alone start the journey of being fully human, without confirmation from others. Taking refuge is the way that we begin cultivating the openness and goodheartedness that allow us to be less and less dependent. We might say, ‘We shouldn’t be dependent anymore, we should be open,’ but that isn’t the point. The point is that you begin where you are, you see what a child you are, and you don’t criticize that. You begin to explore, with a lot of humor and generosity toward yourself, all the places where you cling, and every time you cling, you realize, ‘Ah! This is where, through my mindfulness and my tonglen and everything that I do, my whole life is a process of learning how to make friends with myself.'”
Though courage is not the absence of fear but the ability to act in spite of it, we often scold ourselves for being afraid. “You sissy…you shouldn’t be scared!” Yet fear is actually a sign we’re not cowards— if we’re afraid, we must be stepping outside our comfort zone. Growing up means being brave enough to leave the comfort of mother’s nest and strike out on our own. We become bigger, bolder versions of ourselves when we take monumental leaps, even minuscule steps, into the unknown:
“This need to cling, this need to hold the hand, this cry for Mom, also show that that’s the edge of the nest. Stepping through right there— making a leap— becomes the motivation for cultivating maitri. You realize that if you can step through that doorway, you’re going forward, you’re becoming more of an adult, more of a complete person, more whole.”
In Chodron’s philosophy, we have one purpose: to confront all aspects of the human condition with compassion and courage. Recalling Rainer Maria Rilke’s lovely sentiment that “all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage,” Chodron asserts life’s trials have something to teach: our jealousy of a romantic rival, for instance, might reveal our lack of self-love, the schoolgirl insecurity we feel when we catch the man we love looking desirously at someone else might point to unresolved trauma and trust issues from being cheated on. To be a bodhisattva, or spiritual warrior, we must face— rather than flee— the lessons our dragons have to impart:
“Working with obstacles is life’s journey. The warrior is always coming up against dragons. Of course the warrior gets scared, particularly before battle. It’s frightening. But with a shaky, tender heart the warrior realizes that he or she is just about to step into the unknown, and then goes forth to meet the dragon. The warrior realizes the dragon is nothing but unfinished business presenting itself, and that it’s fear that really needs to be worked with. The dragon is just a motion picture that appears there, and it appears in many forms: as the lover who jilted us, as the parent who never loved us enough, as someone who abused us. Basically what we work with is our fear and our holding back, which are not necessarily obstacles. The only obstacle is ignorance, this refusal to look at unfinished business. If every time the warrior goes and meets the dragon, he or she says, ‘Hah! It’s a dragon again. No way I am going to face this,’ and just splits…[we] become more and more timid and more and more afraid and more of a baby. No one’s nurturing you, but you’re still in that cradle, and you never go through your puberty rites.”
More than anything, growing up means being in control of ourselves. Unlike children, we can no longer get away with throwing temper tantrums in supermarkets or hurling petty insults at anyone who pisses us off. As adults, it’s (unfortunately) no longer acceptable to call people “butt heads” or push the friend who hurts our feelings into the sandbox. We have to maintain our composure, no matter what.
Sadly as many of us grow up, we develop emotional armor to protect ourselves from feeling much at all: we adopt a seemingly sophisticated cynicism to avoid getting our hopes up; we pretend not to care whether a new love interest calls. Humans are a fragile species, helpless against a million and one threats: cancer diagnoses and heart attacks; Somali pirates and Islamic extremists; drunk drivers and plane crashes; dictators and genocides; money-hungry multi-national corporations and rigged elections; earthquakes and flash floods; world wars and pandemics. We can’t defend ourselves against the inescapable sadness and suffering of existence. To be vulnerable is the human condition. Yet we spend our lives hiding behind a fortress. Our defense mechanisms— our habit of making everything a joke, our unwillingness to get too close to people and open up— are bulwarks meant to protect us from being seen, being hurt, being judged. But because we shut out potentially painful experiences like disappointment and rejection, we deny ourselves acquaintance with more exulted emotions like intimacy, connection and love. To be truly alive, Chodron believes, we have to open— rather than shut down— our hearts:
“When you leave the cradle…you are in this beautiful suit of armor because, in some sense, you’re well protected and feel safe. Then you go through your puberty rites, the process of taking off the armor that you might have had some illusion was protecting you from something, only to find that actually it’s shielding you from being fully alive and fully awake. Then you go forward and meet the dragon, and every meeting shows you where there’s still some armor to take off.”
With simplicity and sagacity, Chodron suggests we all have our own choice of armor:
“I will spend my life taking this armor off. Nobody else can take it off because nobody else knows where all the little locks are, nobody else knows where’s it’s sewed up tight, where it’s going to take a lot of work to get that particular iron thread untied. I may have a zipper that goes right down the front and has padlocks all the way down. Every time I meet the dragon, I take off as many padlocks as I can; eventually I’ll be able to take the zipper down. I might say to you, ‘Simple. When you meet the dragon you just take off one of your padlocks and then your zipper will come down.’ And you say, ‘What is she talking about?’ because you have sewn a seam up under your left arm with iron thread. Every time you meet the dragon, you have to get out these special snippers that you have hidden away in a box with all your precious things and snip a few threads off, as many as you dare, until you start vomiting with fear and say, ‘This is enough for now.’…To the next person you meet, you say, ‘All you have to do is get your little snippers out of your precious box and you start—” and they look at you and say, ‘What is he talking about?’ because they have big boots that come all the way up and cover their whole body and head. The only way to get the boots off is to start with the soles of the boots, and they know that every time they meet the dragon, they actually have to start peeling. So you have to do it alone. The basic instruction is simple: take off that armor. That’s all anyone can tell you. No one can tell you how to do it because you’re the only one who knows how you locked yourself in there to begin with.”